Winners Named in 2021 Paul Engle Essay Contest

The Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization has completed judging for this year’s Paul Engle Day: Glory of the Senses Essay Contest, and will award scholarships to eight high school students from across Iowa.

The winning essay was “The First Morning,” by Johnnie Each, now a junior at Cedar Rapids Prairie High School. In recognition of her essay, Johnnie will receive one year of free tuition to the University of Iowa, offered in partnership with the UI.

In the essay, she writes about the experience of a rainstorm in Backbone State Park. With vibrant description, skillful control, and emotional resonance, Each offers a powerful sensory description that brings to life the way “even the somberest looking pine seems to be alive this morning as beads of water collect on its needles and drip, drop playfully down the branches” as she rides her bike down a road “that is slowly decaying back into gravel and asphalt chunks,” past “swaying boughs… [and] the dark blur of the lake; a moody and murky smear against the pallid sky.”

  2021 winner Johnnie Each.

The essays were judged by a team from ACT in Iowa City. Commenting on Johnnie’s essay, the team said her ability to recount an experience so vividly and play and experiment with how words are used while maintaining precise control of voice and grammar, distinguished this essay as exceptional.

“She uses this memory to reflect on the importance of family and community, explaining how this family vacation to Backbone is a long-standing tradition which, in an uncertain world, offers the quiet comforts of summer days spent ‘creek stomping and crawdad catching’ and evening meals spent ‘swatting flies and swapping stories on the peeling green picnic tables,’ as she comes to understand how “This place, these people- they are the eyes of my storm,” the judges wrote. “Each’s wise and lovely essay celebrates the importance of family, tradition, and the beauty of nature, all within the context of discussing the weather—and there is nothing more Iowa than that.

The contest is based on the writings of Paul Engle – the long-time director of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and co-founder of the UI’s International Writing Program – particularly his memoir, A Lucky American Childhood.

Seven runners up from around the state will receive $500 cash scholarships from the City of Literature.

The runners up are:

  • Elizabeth Clark, Ankeny High School
  • Olivia Compas, Glenwood Community High School
  • Kennady Donovan, Central DeWitt High School
  • Heidi Du, Iowa City West High School
  • Lauren Rolling, Ankeny High School
  • Alaina Steffen, Dike-New Hartford High School
  • Sophia Woods, Cedar Falls High School

The contest solicits essays from Iowa high school sophomores, and is designed to recognize the best writing from each of Iowa’s nine Area Education Agencies, which cover the state. The contest was held later this year because of the pandemic. Due to a lack of suitable submissions from three AEAs, not all AEAs were represented.

For more information about Paul Engle and the ways in which the City of Literature celebrates his life and work through this contest, please visit

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